In her expose of the sexism pervading Silicon Valley, company founder Elissa Shevinsky described her time at a startup as an “onslaught of misogyny, penis jokes, porn references, and general lack of common courtesy.” This “bro culture,” marked by frequent sexist joking and teasing, is not confined to tech. In a “New York Times” survey on office behavior, 19% of American men reported telling “stories or jokes that some might consider offensive.”
When confronted with sexist humor at work, women are often left with no good option. They can try to ignore it, complain about it and risk being labeled a killjoy — or they can respond in kind. The third option is controversial. In the short term, it helps women blend into the bro-heavy environment; in the long term, it has the notable downside of reinforcing existing cultural norms that disadvantage women.
Two of us (Natalya and Mandy) are organizational psychologists whose recent work addresses this “culture of sexist joviality” and its effects on men and women in the workplace. Our field study focused on IT trainees at an instructional site in Mexico run by a major US tech company (call it “Tech.com”). Though the trainee population was fairly gender-balanced, program leaders were overwhelmingly male, in line with demographic trends in the global tech industry.
Men and women using gender stereotypes to tease and mock each other was a constant conversational theme among the Tech.com trainees and managers. More than half the instances of humorous banter we observed at the company site were sexual or sexist. Curiously, the female trainees who enthusiastically engaged in sexist joking — approvingly tagged “bromistas” (comedians) by the other trainees and male instructors — appeared to be held in high esteem. By contrast, there were signs that female non-jokers were considered snobbish and aloof. Indeed, a survey confirmed that bromista trainees enjoyed significantly higher-than-average social status compared to non-joking women. Surprisingly, male jokers ranked lower on the social scale.
The rise of “bromistas”
Higher social status is associated with greater well-being, more substantial influence, access to valuable information and resources and more recognition for the same level of performance. Therefore, bromistas were likely to receive career benefits — at least in the short term — over and above those of bros.
Why were bromistas rewarded and bros punished for the same behavior? Our evidence suggested that men who told sexist jokes were seen as less interpersonally skilled in failing to adapt to cultural change — i.e., the presence of women in a male-dominated setting. For women, however, sexist joking was seen as a sign of interpersonal skill or the ability to conform to unfamiliar masculine norms. Because interpersonal skill is a highly valued characteristic, it is a driver of social status.
In a subsequent online survey of US-based working adults, we asked participants for their opinions about a hypothetical male or female colleague who reciprocated (or not) sexist jokes. As with the Tech.com study, bromistas outranked bros in social status. These results implied that our findings may apply across different cultural contexts.
At first glance, our study may suggest that participating in sexist joking is suitable for women. Prior research shows that exposure to sexist joking can change men’s and women’s attitudes in ways that perpetuate gender inequality, including increasing leniency toward discrimination against women and self-objectification of women.
Moreover, the status boosts some women may receive from telling bro jokes is likely short-lived. One of us (Mandy) co-authored a research paper showing that female MBAs who self-identified with conventionally masculine norms, such as individualism and aggressiveness, initially earned higher salaries than their male peers. But within eight years, the men’s wages were on track to overtake the women’s — and the women were working fewer hours than men and more feminine women. The researchers concluded that trying to be one of the boys — which can include being a bromista — may cause women to burn out and disengage from their careers over time.
Taken together, our findings suggest that sexist joking is an especially insidious aspect of bro culture because it falsely appears to benefit women while setting them up for eventual career struggles. Meanwhile, contrary to some popular press portrayals, sexist joking may lower the workplace status of men who — by the norms of bro culture — enthusiastically embrace it. Although our research did not address race, similar dynamics may play out concerning racist joking and teasing, highlighting another potential area for concern.
Managers as the Joke Police
While we believe it is essential to shed light on this phenomenon, in terms of practical takeaways, we recommend that managers actively discourage sexist (and other problematic) joking among their teams. The first step they could take is simply letting male jokers know how they’re coming across to their colleagues, using 360-degree feedback. Men who choose not to crack sexist jokes can be enlisted as allies to help call out sexist joking as inappropriate.
Indeed, in ongoing work, one of us (Natalya) and her colleagues found that men are more receptive to gender equity efforts when they see other men also support these efforts.
Another option is to address the underlying causes of sexist joking. In a 2018 study, Natalya found that men’s sexist joking can be a response to feeling threatened as a man. This suggests that affirmation-based approaches that have been found to mitigate feelings of threat, such as focusing employees on their core values, may reduce sexist joking.
Managers can also intervene more directly when they know how to distinguish sexist jokes from harmless or healthy ones. As we see it, a sexist joke meets at least one of three criteria. First, it aims to degrade men or women as a category, either explicitly or covertly. Second, it reinforces gender stereotypes. Third, it enforces gender norms, for example, by ridiculing men for acting “like a girl.” If a joke told among co-workers meets any of these three, it could indicate a deeper problem in the team culture.
Most managers will be wary of being seen as the Joke Police. But our research highlights that, while it may have some short-term benefits, sexism in the form of a joke isn’t more benign in the long term than sexism with a straight face. Despite its benefits for women who play ball at work, allowing sexist humor to increase is a long-term recipe for a toxic organizational culture.
Olivia (Mandy) O’Neill, Ph.D., is an associate professor of management at George Mason University School of Business and senior scientist at the university’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. O’Neill is an expert on organizational culture, emotions in the workplace, and careers, and she consults across a wide range of organizations. Natalya Alonso, an assistant professor in management and organization studies at Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University, works with organizations to solve problems related to diversity, equity and inclusion — issues she addresses in her research. Benjamin Kessler is the research communications and outreach officer at George Mason University School of Business.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.